Remembering Abraham Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address

Today is the birthday of two key figures: Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). What follows are some reflections on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I have enormous respect for Lincoln and in what follows I reflect on one of his most profound statements, his reflection on the American Civil War. It is a reflection that reveals Lincoln at his very best. For a reflection on Darwin, see Dr. Albert Mohler’s blog for today, “Charles Darwin and the Modern Mind.” The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the most violent experience in American history. At least 620,000 soldiers were killed in the war—2% of the American population in 1860. If the same percentage of Americans were killed in a war today, the number of American war dead would exceed five million. Moreover, an unknown number of civilians, virtually all of them in the South, died from causes such as disease, hunger or exposure brought about by the war. As a result, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all of America’s other wars combined.

One of the most remarkable statements of what God was doing in the Civil War comes from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, who does not appear to have been a Christian. It was Saturday, March 4, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration. Preceding that day there had been weeks of wet weather that had caused Pennsylvania Avenue to become an ocean of mud. So it was that thousands of spectators stood in thick mud at the Capitol grounds to hear the President. In little more than a month, he would be assassinated.

By the date of Lincoln’s second inauguration, the tide of war had turned in favour of the Union, and the end was in sight. “The tone of the address, however, is subdued rather than triumphant, and it rises to a rare pitch of eloquence, marked by a singular combination of tenderness and determination” [“American Historical Documents, 1000–1904. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address” (]. It is a theologically intense speech that has been widely acknowledged as one of the most remarkable documents in American history.

A journalist by the name of Noah Brooks, an eyewitness to the speech, said that as Lincoln advanced from his seat, “a roar of applause shook the air, and, again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light.” Brooks said Lincoln later told him, ‘Did you notice that sunburst? It made my heart jump.” According to Brooks, the audience received the speech in “profound silence,” although some passages provoked cheers and applause.

In this address Lincoln gives one of profoundest theological interpretations of the Civil War:

"One eighth of the whole population were…slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Notice Lincoln’s conviction about the inscrutability of God’s will, a humble agnosticism about the purposes of God. Lincoln declares this in the form of a thesis: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” He then quotes Matthew 18:7 to suggest the moral character of life under God: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” Then he looks squarely into the abyss that almost none of his contemporaries could bear to contemplate: “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences…” The abyss is the suggestion that responsibility for the war might be shared.

One sees clearly Lincoln’s anti-slavery position, but his final paragraph is astounding. How different from both the Northern and Southern theologians who were quite certain God was on their respective sides!

As Mark Noll, to whom the above commentary is deeply indebted [ “ ‘Both…Pray to the Same God’: The Singularity of Lincoln’s Faith in the Era of the Civil War”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 18, no.1 (1997).] has rightly said: “The theological puzzle of the Civil War thus reveals a theological tragedy, both for those who retained profundity at the expense of Christianity and those who retained Christianity at the expense of profundity.”